Graphic of an excused absence agreement. Credit: Claire Lorimor / Mustang News

Students in Cal Poly’s Disability Alliance club created a petition in late November to oppose a new form they are being required to fill out, entitled the “Excused Absence Agreement.

This form sparked outrage amongst club members, as one of the questions allows professors to decide the maximum number of disability-related absences a student can have before their success in the course is impacted.

“We were so mad,” said English junior Sydney Lehr, who joined the Disability Alliance after transferring to Cal Poly at the start of the year. Lehr uses their excused absence accommodation, which allows them to miss class for disability-related reasons without impacting their grade, when the pain from their chronic illness becomes too intense to be in class.

Lehr said the form worried them for a number of reasons, most related to discrimination. Their biggest immediate concern was the possibility that they would have to reveal their personal medical information to their professors in order to prove that they needed a certain number of absences.

“I don’t like getting into the nitty gritty of my diagnosis and stuff, that’s pretty personal,” Lehr said. “I shouldn’t have to divulge that to access my rights.”

Aside from that, Lehr said that they worried about the potential of having to negotiate their needs, which could impact their relationship with their professors. 

“If your professor sets a limit on how often you can use your accommodations, you’re never going to respect that professor,” Lehr said. “They’ve just told you your needs don’t matter, or that your needs are less important than their class.”

They said they also worry about the potential discrimination they might face from professors who they currently don’t have a good relationship with.

“Most of [the Disability Alliance] have experienced discrimination from a professor in some way,” Lehr said.

Lehr said that the first three questions in the form, which revolve around communication such as how the student will notify their professors of disability related absences, are reasonable, but that they still put an undue amount of responsibility on the student.

Cal Poly spokesperson Matt Lazier wrote in an email to Mustang News that the form is not a change in policy, but rather intended as a tool for communication.

He said the form was created after the Disability Resource Center (DRC) received complaints from faculty that students weren’t notifying their professors when using their excused absence accommodations.

“Prior to the form, if a student reached a number of absences that hindered their ability to be successful in the course, the faculty member would contact DRC and a specialist would assist the student in looking into options such as a withdrawal,” Lazier wrote. “The question on the form is looking at that on the front end — rather than the back end, after the student reached that number of absences.”

Lazier also wrote that the form does not require students to divulge personal medical information.

“The existing process — which, again, this new form does not change — is clear that faculty may not ask about disability and may not ask for any type of verification for a disability-related absence, as that has always been managed by the DRC,” Lazier wrote.

He wrote that students with concerns about this form are encouraged to contact the DRC to discuss it with them.

Communications senior and president of the Disability Alliance, MW Kaplan said that they understand what the intentions of the agreement are, but that they still anticipate it leading to discrimination.

“Their intention, I assume, would be that the instructor and the student engage in a dialogue to figure out what would best help the student while still maintaining the integrity of the class,” Kaplan said. “But that conversation inherently contains the power imbalance of a student of a marginalized group having to request equal access to the class from someone with power over them.”

Additionally, Kaplan said that despite it not being the intention of the form, professors who are already hostile towards DRC students may view this agreement as an opportunity to restrict a student’s accommodations.

Kaplan said a better way to address the issue of excused absences would be to set a standard maximum for all classes, and once the student reaches that maximum to set up a meeting with their access specialist and the professor in order to decide next steps.

“I think getting the student’s access specialists involved would be really important, that’s the person who is responsible for protecting the students,” Kaplan said. “There is no equal conversation between a professor and a student, there’s never a situation where the student isn’t at a disadvantage.”

Kaplan said that there is a general lack of understanding surrounding disability among the professors at Cal Poly, which could explain why there are ongoing problems with miscommunication.

“If [professors] think that students are getting extended deadlines or excused absences because they are just lazy then they’re gonna push really hard against that,” Kaplan said. “Thats because of this sort of widespread cultural idea that people not doing work are lazy, and if you’re lazy you’re morally bad.”